YOKOHAMA – Yuzo Kurihara may be suspended for Japan’s World Cup qualifier against Iraq this month, but if the Yokohama F. Marinos defender cannot be with his teammates in body, he fully intends to be there in spirit.
Japan takes on Iraq at Saitama Stadium on Sept. 11 having made an impressive start to the final Asian qualifying round for Brazil 2014, but the team’s haul of seven points from three games has not come without a price.
A red card in the dying minutes of the team’s 1-1 draw with Australia in June has ruled Kurihara out of the Iraq fixture, while suspensions for fellow defenders Atsuto Uchida and Yasuyuki Konno have further whittled down manager Alberto Zaccheroni’s options.
For Kurihara, the punishment will be particularly difficult to take.
The 28-year-old made the most of a rare starting opportunity in the absence of injured regular Maya Yoshida in Brisbane by scoring Japan’s opener and clearing an Australian attack off the goal-line, but after picking up a second yellow card in the 89th minute, he will have to sit out his chance to stake a further claim.
“If we had won 1-0 and I had been sent off then I wouldn’t have minded, but in the end we could only draw,” Kurihara said at Marinos’ training ground earlier this week. “Scoring a goal and then getting a red card leaves you with mixed emotions.
“I can’t play in the next game, but everyone fights together. I can’t be there, but I will be supporting the team because we are all in it together. The game is at home, so hopefully the team can draw strength from that and get the win. I’ll be doing everything I can to support them.”
In the meantime, Kurihara has plenty to occupy himself with in Yokohama. Marinos’ attempts to set a new club record of 16 straight unbeaten J. League games fell at the final hurdle with a 2-0 loss to Cerezo Osaka last weekend, but with the team currently sitting sixth in the table, a bigger prize is within reach.
“At the start of the season we weren’t able to win, and that put us far behind in the table,” said Kurihara. “Then we went 15 games unbeaten and it put us right up there. Now we have to make sure we don’t let that go to waste and go on to do even better.
“The record wasn’t really something we were thinking about, but as it got closer and it started to look achievable, it was something we wanted to do. It’s a little disappointing not to get it in the end.”
For Kurihara, however, last weekend’s result was merely a setback in a season that has brought its fair share of personal reward.
International recognition has come late for a player who won his first cap in 2006 and had to wait almost four years for another, but the Kanagawa native knows he cannot afford to rest on his laurels.
“When I first played for the national team, I wondered why I had been picked,” he said of his debut under Ivica Osim in the Bosnian’s first game in charge. “I played that game and then over the next four years I got stronger and stronger, and then I was picked again. That felt like the start for me.
“But I’m still not a regular in the starting lineup and I can’t let myself be satisfied. There are still things I need to work on, and I will be doing my best in training and in matches to improve.”
Given the players who have mentored Kurihara at Marinos over the years, his eventual rise to prominence should hardly come as a surprise.
Yuji Nakazawa and Naoki Matsuda made 150 international appearances between them while leading Yokohama to consecutive titles in 2003 and 2004, and with just over a year having passed since Matsuda died suddenly after a cardiac arrest at the age of 34, Kurihara still feels his former teammate’s influence.
“It’s been a year, but it doesn’t feel like he is dead,” he said of Matsuda, who collapsed in training with Matsumoto Yamaga last August before passing away two days later. “It’s like he is still with us somewhere.
“It was great for me to be able to learn first hand from two such great players. They knew the standard that was required to make the national team, and that was a huge plus for me. On the other hand, you could also say that their level made it difficult for me to get into the team when I was younger.”
Once his international suspension has been served against Iraq, however, Kurihara intends to make sure he is never in anyone’s shadow again.
“My aim is to become a regular in the national team and play at the World Cup,” he said. “At Marinos I want to win the J. League and then the Asian Champions League. We still have a chance this year, and we’ll be giving it our all to make it happen.”